Justice alone is not the same as peace

By John Armes
August 20, 2013

It is good to be here at St John's, Edinburgh, for the newly named Just Festival – for this is a place of peacebuilding. I will say more about that in a moment. [1]

It is thirty years ago this year that I attended the World Ploughing Championships in Zimbabwe… not as a competitor, I hasten to add, but as a chaplain. The Championships take place every year and each time they are held a Cairn of Peace is dedicated. Normally some eminent person is invited to dedicate the Cairn. However, in 1983, because the President of Zimbabwe, Dr Canaan Banana, wanted to charge a fee for doing so they had to wheel in a substitute, namely, myself. It was a great honour and a wonderful experience.

The point is, however, that because of the Championships there is now a chain of cairns stretching across the world, symbolising the common roots and solidarity that link farming people together, wherever they live. This sense of belonging together is essential to any peace-building.

What became of the Cairn I dedicated and even of the farm it was on I do not know. The thirty years that have elapsed since I visited a very hopeful young Zimbabwe have hardly been years of peace there. There has been no outright war, perhaps, but decades of tribalism, of lust for power, dispossession, exclusion, injustice do not speak of peace.

Let’s not be simplistic about it. Zimbabwe’s troubles did not begin 30 years ago but much earlier than that. And we cannot reflect on Africa without acknowledging the ambiguous influence of Europe and the West on its present troubles.

But more than this. Whilst I may have used Zimbabwe to illustrate what peace is not, Zimbabwe is only a microcosm of what pervades the whole world. Uneasy truces, privilege suppressing dissent, power of money dispossessing and emasculating the poor, we see these things everywhere, including Scotland. When inequality increases and the poor are expected to shoulder a disproportionate burden of an economic recession, there is no peace. When ideology overrides compassion, there is no peace. When, as we have seen in this past week, social networks like Twitter are used to threaten rape and abuse, there is no peace.

This illustrates well how peace and justice belong together – like the old name of this festival that speaks of peace and the new name that speaks of justice. Without justice there cannot be peace, not real peace, not the deep peace of shalom, salaam, [shanti]; the peace in which people live together and thrive together – in which "the wolf lies down with the lamb and the little child feeds them", as the Hebrew Scriptures put it.

Yet justice alone is not the same as peace.

Justice can be a shallow notion. We speak much of the rule of law – but what if those laws are themselves unjust?

Justice can be beyond our reach – for sometimes it is not ours to give. What justice can there be for those innocents on whose backs we climb to freedom?

Justice at times can be transcended for the sake of reconciliation.

I do not mean that justice is expendable; that peace can ever be won at the expense of justice. But sometimes the way we or others deal with injustice can itself be an act of peace-making. I think here of those Truth and Reconciliation commissions on the South African model. I think of my own faith, the Christian faith, in which, at its heart, an act of injustice against an innocent man is transcended and transformed by the grace of God.

As the Psalms of David suggest, in this world justice and mercy are sometimes at odds with each other, and peace in this world can only come when someone dares to forgive. Forgiveness is costly; it cannot be imposed or demanded, it only comes through choice.

What, then, does Just Festival contribute to peace-making?

Essentially, it provides a forum and a context for peace-full conversation. It takes some of the biggest issues of our day, issues on which (understandably) we may disagree and invites our honest and respectful companionship as we deliberate on them. And it does so not in a purely cerebral, lowest-common-denominator type of conversation but, as we have seen already this evening, by surrounding and infusing our activities with colour, art, music, laughter – with creativity. Here we find the delights and the depths of many cultures, many faiths, many ways of articulating that deepest part of our humanity we describe as ‘spirit’.

As such, Just Festival models what a healthy, political society should be – how we should behave in the public realm. For it helps us to develop a discourse built on ‘letting be’, ‘being together’ and ‘being ourselves’.

Letting Be: a recognition of the distinctiveness of other people, cultures and faith traditions; putting the best not the worst construction on them; recognising their right and responsibility to be who they are.

Being Together: in a search for common ground and new insights through building relationships with others.

Being Oneself: claiming the right and the responsibility to speak up and to contribute, self-critically, to the common good…

…and allowing all this to move us to action.

In other words, being in relationship comes before being right. And though, of course, in any political society decisions have to be made with which not everyone will agree, yet my experience is that decisions made after free and open discourse are much more likely to be world-transforming and peace-creating. Whatever my sense of rightness, my view of truth may be at the start it always looks different on the other side of peace-full discourse.

We drink from different wells. Whether or not we believe these wells draw from the same source, yet different waters can sometimes take on very different flavours. As I see it, this Just Festival is a vital way in which we share the energies and excitement of the traditions that slake our thirst, as we rejoice in the colourful diversity of our shared humanity and we commit ourselves to a search not merely for justice but for peace.

May this festival help you to seek peace, to make peace and to find peace today and always.



[1] This is an edited version of the address that Bishop Armes gave at the opening of Just Festival on 3 August 2013.

Hear Bishop Armes on 20 August: "Can we create a 'good society'?" - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18842


(c) John Armes is the Scottish Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh. He was consecrated and installed in May 2012. Prior to that, Dr Armes was Rector of the Church of St John the Evangelist, Princes Street, Edinburgh, since October 1998. He also held the position of Dean of the Diocese of Edinburgh.

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